- Paris Flash
- Real Estate
By JEFF PARISH
A divided Lamar County Commissioners Court approved a 2-cent tax hike Friday.
The commissioners voted 4-1 to adopt a tax rate of 43.87 cents per $100 of appraised property value during the three-hour session. That’s a 4-percent bump that means an additional $20 in taxes a year for a $100,000 home.
It was one of several split decisions where County Judge Chuck Superville provided the only dissenting vote.
“I want to be real clear this is not a good way to go,” he said.
Lamar County has not seen a tax rate increase in six years. This one comes largely to fund $729,290 added to the budget for medical insurance costs for dependants of employees.
Most spoke against any kind of tax increase, although several employees defended their benefits. By the time the vote for the actual increase occurred, almost no one remained.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Lawrence Malone made a motion to adopt a plan that would have the county pay 65 percent of the dependant coverage while employees picked up the other 35 percent. That would cost from $200 for an employee and child to $500 for an employee and family, where they are currently paying $121 to $302.
Commissioners approved the 65/35 plan by a vote of 3-2, with Superville and Precinct 4 Commissioner Keith Mitchell voting against. Mitchell said he preferred a 50/50 plan with a 1-cent increase.
Superville’s proposed budget included $12.7 million in expenditures with a $269,000 shortfall, which he said was manageable without a tax increase. His budget eliminated dependant care entirely at a savings of $416,570, which sparked weeks of debate. For some low-level employees, the change could have actually required employees to pay the county for insurance rather than receiving anything on a paycheck.
“With what the employees make, there’s no way they can afford that kind of money,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Lonnie Layton said. “I don’t think 65/35 is unreasonable.”
Lamar County has 178 employees and 153 dependants on its insurance plan – which means about 53 percent have dependants insured through the county. And that translates to higher pay for about half of the employees, Superville said.
Mitchell said Superville’s budget removed a financial benefit from those employees. He asked how the county judge planned to compensate them.
When the commissioners voted to fund the 65/35 insurance plan, Superville asked the commissioner how he planned to compensate the one-half of the county employees who won’t get that benefit because they don’t have dependants.
“That’s a good question,” Mitchell replied. “If I’m going to err, I’m going to err on behalf of the children.”
It’s not just the insurance, Layton said. All the services the county provides cost more these days.
“We’re trying to provide those services on a tax rate that is six years old,” he said. “That doesn’t work when road oil, tires and fuel have tripled in price.”
The court also spent a few tense moments discussing Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Jenkins‘ request to remove $12,000 from the county judge’s budget that had been added for part-time help.
Superville said that was a transfer from funds budgeted in previous years for the Red Cross to update the county’s disaster preparedness plan. When the Red Cross said it would no longer take care of the plan, Emergency Management Coordinator Heath Thomas took it over. Superville said he had been told he would receive the payments for the extra work in the future.
The plan needs to remain up to date because it helps to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, Superville said. Hiring an outside consultant to do it would cost more than twice as much.
“This is, with all due respect, a really bad move,” he said.
When asked who will take care of the plan in the future, Jenkins pointed at the county judge and said, “his office” since the coordinator is already performing the work.
Jenkins’ motion hung in the air without a second for some time. Just as Superville was about to declare it dead, Mitchell seconded the motion. It passed 4-1 with the county judge voting no.
Jenkins also tried unsuccessfully to reduce Superville’s training budget from $6,700 to the $2,500 it was in this year’s budget. Everyone else was asked to cut their budgets, the commissioner said, but the county judge added to his.
“I didn’t add,” Superville said. “This is putting it back to what it was before you got mad at me and started picking on me.”
To help offset the insurance costs, commissioners also voted 4-1 to remove $90,000 from a line item for miscellaneous, unforeseen expenditures and set it at the historic rate of $110,000.
For the past three years or so, nearly all of the county’s increased revenue has been going to pay for insurance cost increases, the county judge said. He warned the problem will not go away any time soon.
“The parts we don’t fix this year will come back next year with a vengeance,” Superville said. “Not looking this monster in the face will not make it go away.”